Archive for March, 2016

Iraqi cleric meets with PM after beginning Green Zone sit-in

March 27, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Sunday night after beginning a sit-in in Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone intended to be a show of force following his calls to combat government corruption.

Earlier in the day security forces stepped aside to allow al-Sadr to enter the Green Zone after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital. Al-Sadr has repeatedly called on al-Abadi to enact sweeping economic and political reforms.

“I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone),” al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound’s walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.

As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of the compound’s security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair. Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shiite militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, al-Sadr’s supporters started erecting tents and laying down mattresses.

In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country’s powerful Shiite militias be incorporated into the defense and interior ministries. After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met. Baghdad’s Green Zone, encircled by blast walls and razor wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country’s political elite as well as most of the city’s foreign embassies. Al-Sadr has called it a “bastion” of corruption.

Most Iraqis blame the country’s politicians for the graft and mismanagement that are draining Iraq’s already scarce resources. Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr’s demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.

Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr’s supporters to march up to the Green Zone’s outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering “unauthorized.” The move called into question Prime Minister al-Abadi’s ability to control security in the capital.

“I thank the security forces,” al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. “He who attacks them, attacks me,” he added. While al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented as the leader has made several political missteps and struggled with the country’s increasingly sectarian politics amid the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group. Shiites dominate the central government, while the country’s Kurds in the north exercise increasing autonomy and much of the Sunni population has either been displaced by violence or continues to live under IS rule.

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For 3rd day, Sadrists rally near Baghdad’s Green Zone

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Supporters of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday continued to demonstrate outside the gates of Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone – for the third day in a row – to demand that the government carry out a raft of promised reforms.

“We will continue our sit-ins outside the Green Zone in response to al-Sadr’s call,” Ayoub Ismail, a protester, told Anadolu Agency.

On Friday and Saturday, thousands of al-Sadr supporters staged protests and sit-ins outside the gates of Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the prime minister’s office, Iraq’s parliament and a number of foreign diplomatic missions.

Al-Sadr wants Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reshuffle his cabinet and form a government of technocrats untainted by corruption or sectarianism – both of which, critics say, have hamstrung Iraq’s previous post-invasion governments.

According to Ismail, demonstrators are abiding by the law and cooperating with Iraqi security forces.

“We are here to demand the formation of a technocratic government, the prosecution of corrupt officials and the return of funds pilfered from the state,” he said.

Last month, al-Sadr gave al-Abadi a 45-day deadline to present a list of nominees for the sought-for technocrat government.

The Shia leader went on to warn that his followers would storm the Green Zone if the demands were not met.

On Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum held a meeting with political party leaders in hopes of negotiating an end to the ongoing demonstrations.

Al-Sadr, however, refused to attend the meeting.

Last summer, Iraq’s parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms proposed by PM al-Abadi. The reforms are intended to meet longstanding popular demands to eliminate widespread government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy.

Al-Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in parliament holds 34 seats in the 328-seat assembly and three ministerial portfolios in Iraq’s current government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


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Iraqi, Syrian refugees block other migrants’ protest

March 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Several hundred Iraqis and Syrians in the Idomeni border camp stood between protesters and police on Sunday, thwarting the protesters’ efforts to march toward the fence separating Greece from Macedonia. Scuffles broke out between the two groups.

The protesters twice broke through the barrier the Iraqis and Syrians have formed, only to be pushed back by Greek riot police who used only their shields. People speaking for the Iraqis and Syrians, including Kurds from both countries, have told police that they are not taking part in Sunday’s protest and that the protesters are from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also say that activists were circulating at the camp Saturday, urging people to join the

“There were people, whom we do not know, telling us that they would help us open the border at noon today, but obviously this was not true,” Syrian refugee Hassan Fatuhlla told The Associated Press. Fatuhlla, one of those who have formed a chain around the police, has been at the camp for 37 days. His child was born in a tent 10 days ago, he said.

Iraqis and Syrians are allowed into the European Union as war refugees, although the route through the Balkans is now closed and refugees discouraged from taking the perilous sea journey to Greek islands from Turkey.

Leftist activists from Greece and other European countries have staged protests outside the transit centers and appear determined to sabotage the deal. The rumors spread by them that the border would open Sunday led some people who had gone to the centers to return to Idomeni. These people then protesting that the border has not opened.

Greek police said they stopped two buses and 10 cars carrying Italian activists slightly over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the border protest.

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Iran to send Special Forces to Syria, Iraq

Friday, 18 March 2016

Tehran plans to send Special Forces and snipers to Syria and Iraq, Deputy Chief Liaison of the Iranian Army’s Ground Force General Ali Arasteh revealed yesterday. “At some point we will be ready to send our Special Forces and snipers as military advisers to Iraq and Syria,” Fars News quotes Arasteh saying.

Iran has supported the Syrian regime since the outbreak of the revolution against regime President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime nearly six years ago.

Iranian officials have repeatedly denied reports that they send troops to assist regime forces in Syria.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


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Macedonia reopens its border to Iraqi, Syrian migrants

February 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Macedonia reopened its border to Iraqi and Syrian asylum-seekers on Saturday, hours after migrants protested peacefully on the Greek side of the border, demanding admission into Macedonia.

Haider Sahd, a U.N. field officer in Macedonian town of Gevgelija, confirmed the border opening to the Associated Press. According to Greek police, Macedonia will admit 300 migrants Saturday. Macedonian authorities said the number let in could reach 350. A similar number of migrants, who had entered Macedonia earlier in the week, boarded a train in Gevgelija on Saturday, heading to Macedonia’s border with Serbia.

Macedonia had effectively shut down the border to all migrants since late Thursday night, enraging the Greek government. Macedonia has repeatedly said it has only slowed down or shut down migrant flows in response to bottlenecks further up along the Balkans migrant route.

In two separate protests Saturday, about 450 refugees gathered close to the fence marking the Greece-Macedonian border, carrying placards reading “Open the border” and shouting the same slogan. Before Macedonia decided to open its border, about 6,000 migrants had crowded a nearby tent camp, braving rainy weather overnight, Greek police said. Another 500 migrants are camped at a gas station 17 kilometers (10 miles) away.

Although the protests were peaceful, tempers were fraying among the migrants. “No one can stop the refugees, because people are dying in Syria and Iraq,” said Mohamed Kamel, 39, an Iraqi Kurd from Kirkuk, who was traveling with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.

“People (at the camp) are hungry and angry,” Kamel added. “If this situation continues, we will break down the fence.” In Athens, about 300 protesters marched to the Austrian embassy, demanding unfettered passage for refugees. Austria has taken the lead in slowing down the refugee flows from Balkan countries, a decision that has strained its relations with Greece.

Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia. Demetris Nellas and Raphael Kominis contributed from Athens, Greece.

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In blow to Iran hard-liners, moderates win clerical assembly

February 29, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s moderates have dealt another blow to the country’s hard-liners, winning the majority of seats in last week’s vote for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body empowered with choosing the nation’s supreme leader.

Top moderates — President Hassan Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — both won seats in the assembly, along with 50 other of their allies. The vote for the 88-member Assembly of Experts was held at the same time as the country’s parliament elections. The final results of that vote were expected for later Monday.

According to Iran’s Interior Ministry, which gave the final results for the clerical assembly, moderates won 59 percent of the seats in the body. And though it’s seen as a historic win for the moderates, several prominent hard-liners, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati have also been re-elected.

Jannati, who finished last in Tehran, is also the hard-line leader of the country’s Guardian Council, an unelected, constitutional watchdog that vets election candidates. He has been the most potent force to oppose democratic reforms and disqualify reformist candidates from the parliamentary balloting and also the clerical assembly vote. Jannati and his allies in the Guardian Council disqualified Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, from running in Friday’s vote.

The most surprising was the loss of seats on the clerical assembly for some prominent hard-liners, including Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the current Experts Assembly chief who was not re-elected. Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the spiritual leader of hard-liners and mentor of former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also lost his seat in the assembly.

The Assembly of Experts serves a function similar to that of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, and will someday have to pick a successor to Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It also can directly challenge Khamenei’s rule, something it has never done before.

The assembly is elected every eight years. After Khamenei, who is 76 years old, underwent prostate surgery in 2014, speculation renewed about the state of his health. Friday’s twin elections for parliament and the clerical assembly were the first to be held in Iran since it struck a landmark nuclear deal with world powers last year that brought about the lifting of crippling international sanctions.

The moderates previously held around 20 seats in the assembly and their win is seen as an expansion of their influence within the powerful body. As for the parliament elections, none of Iran’s three main political camps — reformists, conservatives and hard-liners — is expected to win an outright majority in the 290-seat house but partial results so far indicate the best reformist showing in more than a decade.

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Iranian reformists set to win all Tehran parliamentary seats

February 28, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Partial results released Sunday indicate that Iranian reformists will win all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, handing hard-liners an embarrassing defeat in the first elections held since last year’s nuclear deal.

The deal is expected to bolster moderate allies of President Hassan Rouhani, who championed it in the face of hard-line opposition. However, none of Iran’s three main political camps — reformists, conservatives or hard-liners — is expected to win a majority in the 290-seat assembly.

State TV said Sunday that reformists — who favor expanding social freedoms and improving relations with the West — are set to win all of Tehran’s seats. It said 62 percent of the capital’s votes have been counted.

Tehran is seen as a political bellwether where prominent members of all three camps face off against each other. Across the country, the reformist camp is on track for its best showing in more than a decade.

The final results from the elections are expected on Monday. Friday’s election was the first since last summer’s nuclear deal, which brought about the lifting of crippling international sanctions on Iran in exchange for it curbing its nuclear activities.

Reformists and moderate conservatives — who supported the agreement — appear poised to win a majority, which could pave the way for increased economic openness and greater cooperation with the West on regional issues like the war against the Islamic State group.

Reformists currently hold fewer than 20 seats and have been virtually shut out of politics since losing their parliamentary majority in the 2004 elections. Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. Over the next eight years, he aggressively expanded the nuclear program, which Tehran insists is entirely peaceful, and alarmed Western countries by casting doubt on the scale of the Holocaust and predicting Israel would one day be wiped off the map.

Nearly 55 million of Iran’s 80 million people were eligible to vote. Participation figures were not immediately available, but Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on Saturday said turnout likely exceeded 60 percent based on the partial counting of the votes.

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Iran reformists performing well in early election results

February 27, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Preliminary results early Saturday morning showed reformist candidates heading for their best showing in more than a decade in Iranian parliamentary elections, according to local media and election officials counting the ballots.

Officials have yet to release early results, but reports in the semiofficial Fars and Mehr news agencies showed hard-liners losing ground in the 290-seat legislative body. None of Iran’s three main political camps — reformist, conservative and hard-line — was expected to capture a majority, but the reformist camp, which seeks greater democratic rights and better ties with the West, is expected to secure its strongest parliamentary presence since 2004.

A strong reformist showing would be a boost for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the newly implemented Iranian nuclear deal with world powers in the face of harsh hard-line opposition.

Nearly 55 million of Iran’s 80 million people were eligible to vote. Participation figures were not immediately available, though Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli predicted late Thursday there would be a turnout of 70 percent.

Friday’s election for Iran’s parliament and a powerful clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts was the first since last summer’s nuclear agreement was finalized, lifting international economic sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

Polls were closed at midnight and officials immediately began counting the ballots afterward. In the capital Tehran, officials counting the ballots at three different districts confirmed to The Associated Press that reformists were leading their hard-line rivals.

A substantial reformist bloc could herald a crucial shift in Iran’s internal politics. The hard-line camp is largely made up of loyalists of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during his two terms in office avidly stoked tensions with the U.S. and cracked down on internal dissidents. Ahmadinejad also alienated large sectors of the conservative camp, leading some moderate conservatives to ally with reformists in this election in a bid to reduce the power of the hard-liners.

Reformists stormed to power with the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, followed by 2000 parliamentary elections that brought a reformist majority to parliament for the first time. The movement pressed for an easing of Islamic social restrictions, wider freedom of expression and better ties to the international community.

But that hold was broken in the next election in 2004, when reformist candidates were largely barred from running. Ahmadinejad’s election victory in 2005 sealed the movement’s downfall. Since then reformists have been virtually shut out of politics for nearly a decade until Rouhani was elected.

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